MacOS X vs. Ubuntu Linux

[Update: Tim O’Reilly writes that not only Apple but Red Hat should be worried about Ubuntu.]

We bought our older daughter a cheap used ThinkPad as a grade 8 graduation present, and I installed Ubuntu Linux on it for her. It was by far the easiest install I’ve ever done for any operating system — everything just worked, including sound, wireless networking, DVD playback (once I downloaded special restricted packages), remote printing, and suspend-to-ram. I did not have to edit a single text config file — I could do all of the setup, even WiFi, entirely through the Ubuntu/Gnome GUIs. [Correction: I did edit /etc/apt/sources.list to add the sources for the restricted packages, but I think I could also have done that through the GUI if I’d wanted to.]

Why not a Mac?

My daughter is familiar with Linux (at least the GUI parts), MacOS X, and Windows XP. We had considered buying her a Mac notebook, but used Macs cost more than new Wintel books of the same capabilities, so that was a non-starter. She doesn’t much like Windows, probably because they make her use it at school, so Ubuntu it was.

I always liked the Mac interface, especially during the early period up to about 1990 when they led the industry in GUI innovation. Contrary to the accepted wisdom, however, before MacOS X I never found Macs to be a particularly stable desktop computing platform, even compared to Windows. For example, earlier versions of MacOS had highly unreliable TCP/IP support and required huge fixed-size memory allocations for applications, problems that other OS’s had long ago fixed — as much as I liked looking at Macs, I always shrank in terror when family members asked me to help fix problems with them. Windows might crash a lot, but at least it crashed in more predictable ways.

Return of the king …

Fortunately, Apple finally addressed these problems a few years ago by admitting that their backend was completely broken, throwing it out, and replacing it with Unix in MacOS X. They’ve even admitted that maybe the one-button mouse wasn’t such a great idea after all. After that the Mac, if still overpriced, was a strong and stable platform: Mac notebooks started to reappear at IT conferences, Mac ports of Open Source software flourished, and everyone in the Mac world was generally happy. Mac even started innovating in GUI design again, after letting Windows take the lead for a decade.

… but the natives are restless

So why are some of the highest-profile Mac users starting to show disaffection? Mark Pilgrim was the first to announce that he was moving to Ubuntu Linux, and he recently posted a very funny list of Ubuntu essentials for ex-Mac users. Next, Tim Bray announced that he was thinking of switching to Ubuntu, though he’s worried about WiFi support and LCD projector support (my experience has been the opposite of Tim’s). Now Cory Doctorow is also planning to move from Mac to Ubuntu. For all of them, I think, one of the big issues is gaining control over their data which is now locked into Mac proprietary formats that Apple changes at whim.

Cool or cheap?

Do only three defections matter, even if they’re high-profile? Possibly not for Mac usage, but perhaps for Mac price. Historically, Apple has been able to sell its computers for up to a 100% price premium because of the perception that they’re cool — if the mavens suddenly decide that Ubuntu is cooler than MacOS, as seems to be happening, Apple’s price premium could suddenly evaporate.

The end of the Mac-is-cool myth would be as good for Mac users as it would for everyone else (except Apple itself), since cheaper Macs could mean a much larger user base. Would even the hardest-core Mac afficionado complain about a $500 Mac notebook? I didn’t think so.

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8 Responses to MacOS X vs. Ubuntu Linux

  1. Ian King says:

    In fact, you can alter your /etc/apt/sources.list through Synaptic (or adept) in order to enable the universe and multiverse repositories; they even have dialogue boxes and whatnot to set up other repositories for stuff like Wine. (OK, but I still do it in a text editor…)

  2. Danny says:

    Ubuntu sounds great, but the CDs I ordered (for free) from a promo site haven’t yet arrived. No broadband here. It’s just taken me 3/4 of a day to nearly get a fairly standard wireless card going on a Debian machine. The Win2k laptop has long been in need of a wipe-start-again, it’s ssllooww. My wife’s WinXP desktop has been well behaved apart from occasional (bad) hardware problems. This iBook has behaved itself impeccably. It’s my first Mac (6 months?), I was reluctant for a long while because of the proprietary hardware, and that thing where when they break, they really break. But I like it. But still hope Ubuntu’s gonna be better. Despite the trendsetters 🙂

  3. robert says:

    As a long time stock holder I can guarentee you that Apple has NEVER sold a product with 100% margins… 28% margin was about the top for computers. Think before you post.

    The so-called “proprietary formats” are all actually XML files if you bother to do some research. Mark Pilgrim is just pissed off that they changed from mbox to an XML storage format. IT IS XML. Yes, it may be closed source but it’s not some weird binary format.

    Take a look for yourself and learn.

  4. robert: there’s nothing “so-called” about it. If you actually bother to do some research, you’ll find that the emlx file format is undocumented. An undocumented format has to be reverse engineered, whether it’s based on XML or binary or smoke signals. Some of it may be obvious (no prizes for guessing what the “subject” element contains), but not all of it is so easy:

  5. david says:


    Thanks for the comment, but I wrote “price premium”, not “margin”. Price premium has nothing to do with profit or the cost of manufacturing — it’s the difference in retail price between the Mac and competing computers with similar feature sets. Historically, that’s sometimes hit 100% or more (consider the price difference between the Mac and the Atari ST in the late 1980s for one example).

  6. Joe says:

    I don’t understand what those folks have to do with “Mac is cool” perceptions in the general marketplace.

    Artists and musicians are cool, not nerds. And they care about creating art. Archiving it is a tertiary concern.

    I don’t think Apple has anything to worry about in terms of price premium as long as they don’t rest on their laurels.

  7. Julian says:


    Contrary to popular opinion Linux is a very creative platform for art creation. More and more artists are turning to it.

    Linux is already the dominant platform in the movie industry. Unfortunately however alot of the high end 3D modeling software (Maya on Linux is an industry standard these days) and compositing software (Shake on Linux outsells Shake on OSX despite being several times the price) is proprietary and expensive. In other words Linux is standard in big studios, but not in small studios. This is changing however, as more and more musicians and artists move to the platform, if not for it’s performance as the freedom to design their own tools, to get new ‘looks’ and ‘a new sound’ – you know, just like analog artists have done for centuries.

    I work in the digital arts and am seeing a slow but steady migration toward Linux in academies and in the arts sector more generally, for the lower cost, but also for the wide range of lesser known applications that offer non-standardised, marketeer-designed art creation contexts. Digital art these days reeks of Photoshop plugins, drag and drop Macromedia interactivity ‘solutions’, composition approaches implied by software like Logic or ProTools. Sometimes ‘thinking different’ means taking the plunge and trying completely different software.

    One thing worth noting is that Linux offers a true 64 bit platform. OpenSource applications like take advantage of this fact, and a few studios have switched as a result.

  8. Al Lang says:


    jwz is a very very smart guy but he has a big big blind spot (and a big chip on his shoulder) about email. Get over him, install a nice little IMAP server that speaks mbox, and be happy.

    (No, not Courier. Just because someone once posted to jwz’s blog that Courier was good does not mean that Courier is good. jwz only went along with it because he loves any opportunity to diss IMAP.)

    I suggest dovecot.

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